February 17, 2020

How has your teaching philosophy originated and what are the impact of your touchstones?

Chemistry is a subject that I view clearly as an expanding stack of component units. Higher level concepts grow block by block from an understanding of core basic principles. This makes it easy to teach in some ways but it also makes students who miss a block quickly feel lost. I believe that Chemistry and other science subjects become much easier once you can build a robust mental framework to systematise the subject and understand how its component units of knowledge link to and build upon each other. Whilst we do see that some students have a better natural strength at systematising than others (Bressan, 2018), my own personal experience is that this skill can be strengthened in all students through good science teaching and clear scaffolding. Before joining high school teaching full time, I tutored Chemistry and was regularly surprised by the performance jump that could be achieved by seeking out entrenched misconceptions and then rebuilding back up.

Secondly, I believe that students are more likely to excel when they are motivated by intrinsic interest in the subject material. I believe that students should have some choice in where to apply their extra energy beyond their core studies and I don’t demand that all my students need or want to become chemists in the future. In my opinion, interest in a subject can be fostered by showing how it can be applied in real life and either being a good role model for students or by finding them positive role models when you yourself do not fit the bill. For last year’s International Women’s Day, I asked three female friends to record short videos for my students to talk about the difficulties that they face as women in high profile roles and how they have persevered to excel despite the odds.

Thirdly, I have a strong focus on creating a classroom environment where wrong answers and concepts may also be shared in a way that leads to positive opportunities for learning. This comes from my first experiences of teaching working as an English instructor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. My students had very strong evaluation and study skills and so I mistakenly thought that they would actively participate in class. However, it quickly became apparent that they were uncomfortable making a mistake in front of others and asking for responses from the class led to long, awkward silences. I learnt from this experience and nowadays it is important for me that my students feel comfortable to speak in class without fear of embarrassment; mistakes will be accepted as opportunities for further learning. This is particularly important in the cultural setting of China where a strongly entrenched culture of face makes people acutely concerned about embarrassment. In order to begin to foster this atmosphere, I begin each year by laying down expectations for behaviour when other students speak and how we should all behave when incorrect or incomplete ideas are raised. In order to reduce the number of occasions where a student has nothing at all to contribute, students who are stronger will more regularly be asked questions that sit higher on Bloom’s taxonomy (analyse/evaluate/synthesise) whilst weaker students are asked more simple questions involving direct recall (Armstrong, 2018).

References

Armstrong, P (2018), Bloom’s taxonomy [Online] Available at: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/ (Accessed 1/11/2019)

Bressan, P. (2018), Systemisers are Better at Maths, Sci Rep, 8, 11636


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